Friday, November 20, 2009

The Big Disconnect

I am not naive enough to think that a flurry of bestselling books on food ethics (such as those by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, to name but two) has ushered in a New Age of environmental awareness - as wonderful as most of those books are. Still I found this disturbing to read this morning. It's even more disturbing because the writer is well respected, and undoubtedly read by millions.
Anticipating reader objections, Mr. Foer writes that people might say “social-justice movements” have “nothing to do with the situation of the factory farm,” that “human oppression is not animal abuse.” But he adds that in his view we interpret the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez “too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm.”
It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.
The writer of this tired argument is Michiko Kakutani, main book reviewer of the New York Times. The book in question (which I have yet to read, except in excerpt) is Eating Animals, by young wunderkind novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. It would be interesting to see a debate between two famous people like these, but I doubt it will happen anytime soon. So this sad disconnect between different kinds of suffering - that are, really, all of a piece - probably will go unchallenged outside of this space. I have heard this argument so many times, I am tempted to let it go and sigh in resignation. But suffering - and the humane person's responsibility towards it - must never be ignored or dismissed. It is one of the central questions of existence, the subject of countless, anguished philosophical discussions through the ages. The only way I can "understand" Ms. Kakutani's point of view is to consider the weight of this anguish: surely it is too great for most people (perhaps her included) and the only way to alleviate it is to draw lines around one kind of suffering and say it doesn't deserve attention until all other "more important" kinds of suffering vanish forever. (What kind of world would that be? Sounds like an alternate reality.)
The way I explain this fallacy - which is partially predicated on the assumption that compassion is a finite commodity, like the hours in a day, and must be divided up wisely - is to look at one subset of suffering, human disease. There are so many opinions about how to allocate time, energy and money to fighting this or that disease that I highly doubt that a single strategy exists. Some "deserving" diseases get hardly any attention, while "undeserving" ones are awash in funds. Yet, when asked, would a compassionate person dare compare the suffering of a Malawian child wracked with malarial chills and a NY poet with AIDS? How about different kinds of cancer? How about cancer versus starvation? You can twist yourself in knots trying to justify caring for one, while waving away the other for its lack of relative importance, and just end up looking coldhearted. They all matter, don't they?
Aye, but the beings who are suffering are all human! That's the rub. We climb onto an entirely new level of Us and Them when we cross the species divide.
That's the Big Disconnect: that human suffering trumps all other kinds. 
The problem with that is complex. But I do know that people who eat animals should buy more consciously and compassionately if only due to self-interest: the animal whose suffering they dismiss could be dinner. Hard to be truly disconnected from something that eventually becomes part of you!

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Hard to believe this kind of thinking needs to be spelled out.